Patrick Marber has taken Turgenev’s A Month in the Country and strengthened it in all directions, rather like an enthusiast restoring an aged, leaky old boat into a seaworthy thing of beauty. In Marber’s hands, these characters become more assertive, and considerably more interesting: their actions produce a plot with rather more fire in the belly than Turgenev’s original. The result is a sharply witty costume drama, echoing George Bernard Shaw both in its urbane comic bite (“He’s a dullard: meeting him is the same as not meeting him,”) and tragic emotional fierceness: “I’ve decided I can live with my unhappiness; I won’t live with yours.” Mark Thompson’s design uses the whole Lyttleton stage, a huge landscape painting providing the backdrop which pours across the stage floor, with windows and doors suspended on wires. Edwardian furniture is placed in distant groups, emphasising both spacious luxury and a lack of privacy, of closeness. The steady absence of freedom – of choice, of love – becomes an obsession for all.
The plot is essentially two intersecting love triangles – perhaps even squares or pentagons, so many people are hopelessly attracted to each other – which build into a perfect storm of tortured emotions for all concerned. We have the expected mix of delusional passion, idealism, lust and pain: despite its darker moments, it’s never quite profound, but it’s deeply watchable, well acted, and often extremely amusing.
Marber presides as director over a skilful cast. John Simm has a lovely freshness and clarity of delivery as Rakitin, his life laid waste by his useless passion for his best friend’s wife: Simm conveys a sophisticated, intelligent man at once making the best of life, bitterly aware that true happiness has passed him by. Rakitin’s magnificent soliloquy on the agonies of unrequited love is one of the play’s most powerful moments. While Rakitin is at the heart of this play throughout, Mark Gatiss constantly captures our attention with his brilliantly comic portrayal of the local doctor Shpigelsky, “the maestro of misdiagnosis” who is furthering the suit of boring farmer Bolshintsov (an adorably anxious and shy Nigel Betts) with pretty, brittle young Vera (Lily Sacofsky). Shpigelsky, meanwhile, has matrimonial ambitions of his own: cue the single funniest proposal scene I have ever witnessed, frankly unromantic in style, yet gradually exposing a vulnerability which tears at the heart.
Royce Pierreson’s luxuriously soft voice and restrained physicality make for a magnetic Belyaev, the handsome young tutor with whom nearly everyone is in love. Belyaev’s character benefits considerably from Marber’s touch, becoming a much stronger and more attractive man, conveying inner certainty and charisma despite being socially at odds with those around him. Pierreson conjures appropriately awkward chemistry with gauche little Vera, sensual passion with maidservant Katya (Cherrelle Skeete), and breathless adoration for his domineering, yet tragically vulnerable employer Natalya (a highly wrought, sassy Amanda Drew). John Light is deeply moving as Natalya’s burly, practical husband Arkady, long estranged from his wife (to his great sadness) and immersed in his estate, hectored over by his elegant mother Anna (Lynn Farleigh). The next day, it is Light’s tense, near-explosive pathos that lingers in the mind.